Scientific studies have confirmed that people who eat more fruit and vegetables, particularly the deeply colored varieties, have less heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and age-related neurological decline than those who don’t. The secret is in the colors.
“Plants are the master chemists,” says Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at N.C. State University. “It makes sense to study whether compounds that plants produce in response to stress would help a human under similar circumstances.”
The first plant pigment—chlorophyll— initiates the photosynthetic reactions that produce most of the food and oxygen that sustain most animal life on Earth. Other pigments serve higher plants by attracting pollinators to their flowers and seed-dispersing animals to their fruit. Pigments protect plants from solar radiation, oxidative damage to cells, environmental stress, and attacks by microbes, insects, and animal predators. Pigments also heal damaged plant tissue, help to regulate growth, and act in many other ways still undiscovered.
Beverly Clevidence, who became a research nutritionist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service’s Food Components and Health Laboratory in 1984, foresees the day “when individuals will receive ‘phyto-nutrition’ prescriptions tailored to their specific needs. Perhaps someday we will be saying, ‘You’re more likely to die of this type of cancer than heart disease, and you lack this particular enzyme, so you should eat more of this or that fruit or vegetable.’”
Planting for Pigments
As you plan your garden and plants this season, keep in mind the rainbow of benefits that vegetables provide:
PIGMENT CLASS: Anthocyanins
COLORS: blue, purple-burgundy
FAVORABLE VEGETABLES: black turtle beans; purple cabbage, eggplant, and potatoes; red onions
HEALTH BENEFIT: These pigments may prevent or reverse age-related cognitive decline and/ or neuro-degenerative disease; improve vision; help to prevent cancer, heart disease, insulin resistance, and obesity; and promote wound healing.
PIGMENT CLASS: Betalains
COLORS: red-violet, yellow-orange
FAVORABLE VEGETABLES: beets, spinach, Swiss chard
HEALTH BENEFIT: These pigments may protect against cancer, heart disease, liver damage, and ulcers.
PIGMENT CLASS: Carotenoids
COLORS: yellow, orange to red
FAVORABLE VEGETABLES: carrots, leafy greens (chlorophyll masks the colors), pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, winter squashes, peppers
HEALTH BENEFIT: These pigments protect the immune system, skin, and epithelial cells and may prevent heart disease, cancer, and macular degeneration.
Capture a kaleidoscope effect: Many seed companies offer packets of mixed seeds. Look for “rainbow” mixes of beans, carrots, cauliflower, chard, peppers, and radishes!
Do you consider color when planting your vegetable garden? Let us know in the comments!